Washington is suspending more than three dozen flights from Chinese carriers over the next couple of months, the latest escalation in a spat over pandemic-related travel rules between the United States and China.
On Friday, the US Transportation Department said it would suspend 44 China-bound flights operated by Chinese carriers from the United States between late January and the end of March.
The order — which applies to flights operated by Air China (AIRYY), China Eastern Airlines (CEA), China Southern Airlines (ZNH) and Xiamen Airlines — was issued “in response” to measures by Chinese aviation authorities that forced US carriers to cancel the same number of flights, according to the US Transportation Department.
Many China-bound flights from the United States have been canceled in recent weeks because of a so-called “circuit breaker” rule that the Civil Aviation Administration of China has applied to international flights. That rule, enacted last June, means that a flight is automatically suspended for two weeks if five or more passengers test positive upon landing in China. If 10 or more passengers test positive, the suspension period increases.
China has defended its “circuit-breaker” regulations as “an important step to reduce the risk of cross-border spread of the epidemic.”
With the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and Beijing’s desire to control the risk of outbreaks ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, those rules have made flying from the United States to China incredibly difficult. Earlier this month, CNN Business research of government announcements and published flight schedules showed that it was all but impossible to find a flight from the United States to China because of Chinese aviation regulations.
In its Friday order, the US Department of Transportation argued that the Chinese policy was unfair because it places “undue culpability” on carriers, since the “circuit-breaker” can apply to passengers who test negative before boarding the plane but then test positive for Covid-19 up to seven days after they arrive.
The Chinese government “individually clears each and every potential traveler for travel to China prior to their departure from the United States, after verifying pre-departure test results and other required documentation,” the transportation department wrote, adding that US carriers who follow Chinese regulations “should not be penalized if passengers, post-arrival, later test positive for Covid-19.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign affairs on Monday called the US decision “an act of rudeness and irresponsibility.”
Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, said the country’s “circuit breaker” measures are “fair, open and transparent,” adding that they treat Chinese and foreign airlines equally.
The measures have played an important role in “effectively” blocking the cross-border spread of the virus, he said at a press conference in Beijing.
China largely sealed off its borders in March 2020 and has continued to stick to its strict zero-Covid policy. Flights to and from China — the world’s second-biggest air travel market after the United States — have been drastically cut back, even as international travel has begun to rebound in other parts of the globe.
Last month, a Delta flight from Seattle to Shanghai turned around midair because of a change in cleaning procedures at the Chinese airport that “significantly extended ground time and are not operationally viable,” according to the airline. Chinese officials disputed the account, urging the carrier to “protect customers’ legitimate rights.”
The Beijing Winter Games, meanwhile, open on February 4, and participants are mostly taking special flights restricted to people with OIympics credentials as part of a strict bubble that authorities are implementing around the event.
– CNN’s Steven Jiang and Beijing bureau contributed to this report.